23 October 2005

Miers Received 'Excessive' Sum in Land Case

Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers collected more than 10 times the market value for a small slice of family-owned land in a large Superfund pollution cleanup site in Dallas where the state wanted to build a highway off-ramp.

The windfall came after a judge who received thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from Miers' law firm appointed a close professional associate of Miers and an outspoken property-rights activist to the three-person panel that determined how much the state should pay.

The resulting six-figure payout to the Miers family in 2000 was despite the state's objections to the "excessive" amount and to the process used to set the price. The panel recommended paying nearly $5 a square foot for land that was valued at less than 30 cents a square foot.

Mediation efforts in 2003 reduced the award, but Miers, who controls the family's interest in the land, hasn't reimbursed the state for the difference, even after Bush appointed her to the Supreme Court.

The case raises new questions about Miers' judgment at a time when her nomination is troubled by doubts about her qualifications for the nation's highest court and accusations that she was chosen mostly because of her close friendship with President Bush.

Supreme Court justices, unlike other government officials, define potential conflicts of interest for themselves and are responsible for policing their own ethics.

"If Harriet Miers is confirmed, she'll be entrusted to make a large number of un-reviewable decisions about which cases to sit on," said Doug Kendall, the executive director of the Community Rights Counsel, a public-interest law firm in Washington. Kendall said the fact that Miers raised no red flags in the face of "clearly disturbing facts" in the land condemnation case doesn't say much for her ethical acumen.

Even though Miers was the president of her law firm, she says didn't know the specifics about the firm's campaign contributions to the judge.

The land, at the corner of North Westmoreland Road and Interstate 30 in west Dallas, was one of several parcels that Miers' father purchased in the area after World War II. The market value for the entire 18.74-acre lot, according to state tax records, was only $244,890. It is vacant and brush-covered.

The state wanted to build an off-ramp from I-30 onto Westmoreland Road and needed a small northeast corner of the Miers' lot to do it.

Texas law says that in condemnation cases, a judge must appoint three "disinterested" special commissioners to hear evidence, determine the "injury or benefit" of the state's action to the property owner, and rule on what, if anything, the state should pay for the property.

But there was an accumulation of shared interests - dating back years - among several of the parties that assembled in state District Judge David Evans' courtroom to settle the Miers' case.

Campaign finance reports in Dallas show that Miers' law firm, Locke Purnell Rain & Harrell, had contributed to Evans' political campaigns between 1993 and 2001. That included a $3,000 contribution in 1998, the year before the Miers' condemnation case appeared in Evans' court.

Evans declined repeated requests for an interview.

One of the three commissioners whom Evans appointed to hear the case was Peggy Lundy, a close professional friend and political ally of Miers.

Lundy is listed among Miers' "personal friends" by a conservative interest group, Progress for America, which supports her nomination to the high court.

"Mrs. Lundy's late husband, Judge Nick Lundy of Dallas, attended Southern Methodist University Law School with Harriet Miers and they have known each other for years," the group said in an Oct. 3 press release. In an interview Thursday, Lundy said she and Miers worked closely together on a commission set up to restructure Dallas' municipal court system. Lundy said that she recruited Evans to run for judge and served as the treasurer of his first campaign and as an adviser to several others.

Evans also appointed one of his campaign contributors, Cathie Adams, to work on Miers' case. At the time, she was president of the Dallas Eagle Forum, a politically active conservative organization that touts its "pro-family movement."

Scott Young, the Dallas lawyer who represented the Miers family in the case, never signed the settlement papers, and Miers never repaid the difference.

Kelley also said the state had no knowledge of the two commissioners' prior relationships with Miers and the judge.

"The judge appointed the commissioners. Our attorneys here … had no knowledge of the commissioners one way or another and assumed it would be a fair hearing," Kelley said.

The market value of the Miers' land had been depressed because it is located within a federal Superfund site that had been contaminated by an old lead smelter.

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